I started this post a while back following a a visit to Christ Church for the Gardens Trust conference in Oxford in September 2019. The visit had special significance for the Gardens Trust because Christ Church was once home to Mavis Batey the driving force behind the foundation of the Garden History Society – now part of the Gardens Trust -way back in 1966. Her husband Keith was the Treasurer of Christ Church and she obviously fell in love with the city and Christ Church in particular.
Amongst her many other achievements, including being one of the leading codebreakers at Bletchley Park, she also wrote about the most well-known literary figure associated with the college and the city: Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass.
I got so far with my research and then it slipped down the agenda until recently when I saw that the V&A were planning an exhibition about Alice which was supposed to open next week but luckily is scheduled to run until Christmas. So that was a good excuse to go back and look again at the world of Alice in Gardenland….
Oxford colleges always appear from the streets outside to be densely packed with buildings with very little green space, although the game is sometimes given away by the occasional glimpse of lawn as one peers in past the porters lodge. Our visit to Christ Church proved just how deceptive that idea is. Behind its walls “the House”, as it is often known, has a whole series of gardens and green spaces, public, semi-public and private, many of which are invisible even when through the gates and wandering around.
Founded as Cardinal College by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 Christ Church lies partly inside the line of the mediaeval city walls and partly without. Wolsey had suppressed St Frideswide’s Priory the previous year and taken over its buildings for his new institution, the priory church becoming the college chapel. Building work was still underway when he fell from power in 1529. The project was taken over rather half-heartedly by Henry VIII, and refounded with the former priory church becoming the city’s cathedral, with, uniquely, the Dean running both cathedral and college. Outside the walls the grounds extend through the meadows to the south all the way to the Thames covering about 32ha. Most of the college buildings are on the National Heritage List for England at Grade 1 while most of the grounds and landscape are included on Historic England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens also at the highest level, Grade 1.
The most public of the college landscapes is the Meadow which was given to the priory in 1346 and is maintained today as freely accessible open space. Originally it was two distinct meadows divided by a now virtually dried up lake, visible because of the ditch that still runs across the fields. The two fields are home to Christ Church’s herd of Old English Longhorn cattle and are managed without the use of chemicals or fertilisers.
Over the centuries the Meadow has played a major role in flood prevention, acting as a giant sponge when the rivers breach their banks and overflow. This is not a common occurrence, although it did happen in February this year, and shows the environmental importance of such water meadows in preventing much wider damage downstream. They flood quickly but as the water levels recede the meadows release the water back at a much slower rate. John James, the head gardener at Christ Church who has the Meadow in his jurisdiction published spectacular photos on his blog of the recent flooding, with paths knee deep under waters, deer stranded and even a few trees brought down.
He is also overseeing a more active management system for the meadows which will involve restoring many native species of wildflowers as part of a much larger project -the Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project. Such floodplain meadows are incredibly rare with only 4 square miles remaining in the entire country, with many of them designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Local Wildlife Sites on the upper reaches of the Thames. Building on the success of Natural England’s Agri-Environment schemes which have been running in some of the affected areas for a couple of decades farmers and landowners are working in partnership with academics in an attempt to halt the catastrophic decline in biodiversity by linking up these small sites and recreating similar habitats where it has been lost.
Given all that it might be assumed that Christ Church Meadow is a natural phenomenon. In fact much of its appearance is man-made with the first recorded intervention being in the 1570s. Then a perimeter walk of a double or even quadruple row of trees was planted around most of the boundaries and along the river with the area named on a map of 1578 as ‘Christ Church Meadows and Walkes’. There was a similar walk around nearby Magdalen Meadow too. These predate the more formal “urban” walks at Moorfields in London which were started in 1606, and at Gray’s Inn which date to 1608
During the Civil War when Christ Church served as the headquarters of Charles I, the meadows were deliberately flooded and earthwork fortifications were constructed as additional protection. After the Restoration the walk along the northern side was replanted with closely spaced elms and the surface ” improved” using the spoil from the lowering of the surface level in the college’s Great Quad which may have given rise to its nickname of the White Walk, although it is properly known as the Broad Walk.
In the 19thc Henry Liddell, father of Alice, who was Dean for nearly 40 years, laid out the New Walk. This was raised up like a causeway and ran from the then new Venetian Gothic-style Meadow Building of the college to the Isis or Thames, and its thought was planted with a mix of elm and lime.
At the same time Dean Liddell also extended the Broad Walk by arranging the planting of specimen trees by a range of dignitaries and his own family, including Alice. These became popular promenades for both town and gown.
Unfortunately in the 20thc as everywhere else Oxford was threatened by two scourges.
Traffic was the first. The saga began in 1960 when Oxford City Council asked the Government to conduct a public inquiry into Oxford’s traffic problems, which found a road across the meadow was “inescapable”. It was proposed to flatten over 150 houses, divert the Cherwell and build a road across the Meadow, in a cutting nearly 6m deep.
Unsurprisingly The Oxford Preservation Trust warned of “irreparable damage” while Christ Church called the plan “repugnant and offensive”. A public enquiry in 1965 led to the scheme being “reviewed” then dropped in favour of a relief road further out. That too met with fierce opposition and was eventually dropped. The scariest part of the story is the plans were drawn up by the great landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe.
On a positive note it was the controversy behind this scheme that helped establish the Garden History Society, and also gave Oxford the distinction of establishing the first park-and-ride system in the country.
The other problem was Dutch Elm disease which ravaged the walks in the 1970s and meant that in 1975 they had to be felled and replanted. The choice was made then to use more widely spaced London and Oriental planes on the Broad Walk but this significantly altered its character and so more recently however it has been decided to adopt a longer term management strategy where disease resistant elms will be re-introduced to the Broad Walk to restore the original planting intention.
None of Dean Liddell’s original planting on the New Walk survives, indeed it was replanted only some 60 years later in the 1920s with Black Poplars, with some Balsam Poplars added in the 1970s and a selection of lime species at other times. While poplars are highly tolerant of the damp and sometimes even waterlogged conditions they are also short-lived and relatively unstable, which does not make them good long term choice for public spaces. Indeed many of the century-old poplars are beginning to decay and drop branches without any forewarning signs and so in 2015 the first group were felled and replaced with common lime. More will undoubtedly follow.
At the western end of the Broad Walk is the other easily visible part of the grounds: the War Memorial Garden, which it’s estimated is seen by more than a million people annually. This was designed almost a century ago by the brothers John and Paul Coleridge and built on the site of a demolished building which also opened views across into the college.
It is not a single unified garden but has several sections on either side of a long York-stone path. On the right was an area of grass with what were supposed to be pleached lime trees, but which have been allowed to grow naturally. On the left was an irregular area shaped like a reversed L. The main feature here is a long herbaceous border, raised up on a stone wall, which according to the Head Gardener is now “planted to maximise interest throughout the year using restful colours and plants with winter interest.” Unfortunately it can only be reviewed through railings, to prevent invasion by the hordes of visitors, although Tim Richardson argues this “only adds to the romance.”
At the far end, just as the Broad Walk widens out, the Coleridges designed a more formal pair of small gardens to fill another irregular space.
On the south side is what is still known as the “Rose Garden”, despite only containing one rose, was originally planned as a Dutch Garden but was actually built as an iris garden. It is bright and colourful and unusually, compared with the rest of the college grounds, is normally filled with seasonal bedding displays grown in-house.
This year the Head Gardeners blog showed how they had had to cope during the pandemic with no gardeners on site for several months and how instead of bedding he had used an exotic “cornfield” mix.
Now lets move inside…
Inside the college precincts things are very different. There are two monumental quads and a series of more human-scale intimate spaces.
The Great Quad or Tom Quad which, at 80m square, is the largest quad in Oxford, was started but not finished by Wolsey with the arches of his proposed cloister are clearly visible. Other than some alterations to the layout of the paths and terraces in the late 1800s, little else has changed. It is simply large areas of grass divided by paths, around a lily pool with a copy of Giambologna’s Mercury installed by Lutyens in 1928. However it is not universally popular with Tim Richardson, arguing it suffers from from “overbearing grandiloquence”.
The other set-piece is Peckwater Quad built in the early 18thc. It was said Ruskin who loved the Meadow Building “dull [but] all very grand” in a rather sterile Ionic style. The central area there too is merely filled with grass shapes although this time to an unexecuted design from 1733.
On the other side of the cathedral which sits in the middle of the site, is a garden named after Edward Pococke who was professor of Hebrew at the university for almost the entire second half of the 17thc. He had previously been chaplain to the Levant Company in Aleppo in Syria for over 5 years and bought back seeds of various trees. It is thought that the venerable oriental plane tree growing here was planted by him, and is the oldest in the country. Gnarled and twisted, with propped branches, it has a girth of around nine metres.
Like everything else even slightly unusual in the garden it has an Alice/Lewis Carrol connection and may well be the inspiration for the Tumtum tree in Jabberwocky poem. The Pococke garden is an irregular shape and one of its boundaries is the ancient city wall. As it is very sheltered the head gardener John James has created a garden full of exotics including bananas, trachycarpus and tetrapanax. Last year his blog reported that passion fruit, palm fruit and even pomegranates had set fruit here and in other parts of the garden.
The last of the major gardens is called the master’s Garden, though Christ Church has no master, and has well planted herbaceous borders around a central lawn. It appears from 18thc maps to have been a long established garden, although probably used earlier as a kitchen garden and orchard. Its current layout and use as a private space for students dates back about a century.
The houses of the cathedrals canons are dotted around the precincts and obviously are private but there are some nice images of them in the past.
But it’s the private Deanery Garden, and to a lesser extent the Cathedral Garden, that was the scene of most of the Alice-related stories and for that I’m afraid we’ll have to wait until next week!